Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


"Of this I can make no sense":

Wulf and Eadwacer and the Destabilization of Meaning

James J. Donahue

Of this I can make no sense, nor
am I able to arrange the verses.

Thorpe (qtd. in Aertsen 119)

Introduction: Constructing a Context

Wulf and Eadwacer, as Benjamin Thorpe has (now famously) complained, is a very difficult poem. As those readers, translators, and critics who have put their attention to it have found, a certain degree of frustration is attached to any serious work with the poem. There is no universal understanding of the poem, no one accepted translation, and no universally acknowledged source. Extant translations include those by Alexander, S. A. J. Bradley, Gordon, Spamer, and Traherne. And as Henk Aertsen astutely reminds us, "in the case of W&E a translation, as will be seen shortly, is at the same time an interpretation" (119). The multiplicity of translations hinted at here, however, does no justice to the multiplicity of interpretations discussed below. Just as significantly, there is no standard approach to the poem either. One reason for the difficulties experienced when approaching this poem may be, as Kemp Malone has argued, that "[t]his poem is based on a tale familiar to the poet’s audience but unknown to us" (qtd. in Renoir 148). 1 As Alain Renoir has further commented:

Each reader, of course, arrives at this reaction [of strong emotions] through a slightly different road, depending on his notion of what the text is about. . . . From this point of view, the only serious difference between modern readers and the original audience of the poem is that the latter was presumably equipped with the information necessary to place it in the appropriate context. (148, emphases mine)

Although he claims not to provide us with an explanation of the poem, Renoir does in fact provide us with a rationale for the ways in which explanations–meanings–have been constructed. Those who have come to the poem with the intention of taking from it some meaning, with the intention of constructing a reading of the poem, have attempted to place the poem within some context. This is not unreasonable; very often, the cultural and historical context of a poem help a great deal in constructing a meaning. Or the reverse: texts often help readers to further understand the context in which the poem was written. However, such is not the case with Wulf and Eadwacer.

As Malone and Renoir explain, there is no one context in which the poem is properly to be read. A further problem, as the emphasized passages from Renoir highlight, is the assumptions that must be made in order to construct a contextualized reading of the poem. Because no clear context has been found within the poem itself, the reader has been left to assume not only that such a context was intended by the author, but also that the original audience was aware of the context. Because we cannot place the poem, with any certainty, within a particular historical, cultural, or even genre-defined context, any critical discussion must first construct such a context in order to construct a reading and to "make sense" of the work. However, with all the work that has been done to construct various contexts in which one could read the poem, critical discussion has come no closer to understanding the necessary information that Renoir presumes existed for the original audience, if such an understanding even existed. As such, the critical apparatus that has been constructed around this poem has worked not to further its understanding, but to further remove us from any one understanding. In attempting to discuss this poem in as many frameworks as possible, the critical community has opened up the possibility of meaning–opened the door for the play of meaning–and has thus obfuscated any attempt to uncover any "original" context that may have existed for the poem. Because the poem seems to resist any stable contextualization, it operates as an example of the destabilization of meaning set into motion by the discourse community. The result of this destabilization is the loss of any "one" meaning for the poem, and the range of possibility for "meanings" to be henceforth played out around the poem.

The Thing Itself

What little can be said of the poem, with any degree of certainty, is that it is extant in only one copy, contained in The Exeter Book, 100 verso to 101 recto, immediately preceding the riddles; and it is nineteen lines long. 2 Because no other copy of the poem exists, scholars are unable to date the poem outside the date of the manuscript; nor are they able to make any comparisons to place the poem in any one region. This is primarily due to the influence scribes had on manuscript production. Even if the majority of the works in a manuscript reflect one dialect (for instance, from the West Country), this may simply be an instance of scribal attempt to regularize the language. Without other copies for comparison, placing one poem outside of the manuscript containing it becomes impossible. However, the scarcity of information regarding the historical and cultural context of the poem has become less a point of scholarly contention than the ambiguity of the poem reflected in its language. Multiple studies of this work have concentrated on specific words and phrases, which carry multiple meanings, and as such complicate any one clear reading of the poem. Although such studies include those by Fanagan, Fry, Hough, Jones, and Lehmann, the most influential of such studies is by Peter Baker, "The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer."

Using Arnold E. Davidson’s "Interpreting Wulf and Eadwacer" as his starting point, Baker highlights the internal ambiguity reflected in the language of the poem. For instance, in the first line of the poem–Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gifelac can be variously translated as "a battle/sacrifice/gift/message/game" (40). He points out, however, that "battle" "results from a misinterpretation by Bosworth-Toller of a passage in Guthlac B" (40). Right in the first line, a reader of the poem must make a decision as to what tone he/she will read into the poem and into what context to place it. Obviously, "battle," "sacrifice," "gift," and "game" all carry different tones and will help influence how the reader approaches the rest of the poem, specifically the relationship between the speaker, Wulf, and Eadwacer. Although Baker justifies interpreting lac as "gift," based on Old Icelandic comparisons–giving us for the first line "To my people it is as if one gave them a gift"–it is the possibility of multiple meanings that works to make this poem ambiguous. Although such connections can be made, we cannot assume that the original audience of the poem could have made them. This is because, as Baker further argues:

To determine just how ambiguous Wulf and Eadwacer is, we must distinguish carefully between the meanings a word or phrase had for a speaker of Old English and the meanings it may have for modern readers, who must depend on fallible scholarly tools. (41)

It would seem that Baker’s reading rests upon just such "fallible scholarly tools" in defining the meaning for an Old English word on an Old Icelandic source. Again, where such sources may be relevant for related languages, one cannot definitively rest upon them for teasing out the meaning of an inherently ambiguous word.

Two other such words that work to resist easy interpretation are found in the second line: willa[th] hy hine a [th]ecgan gif he on [th]reat cyme[th]. Baker here recognized "three problems: what, precisely, do a [th]ecgan and [th]reat mean, and is the line a question or a statement?" (42). Baker determined that "[o]ur evidence for the meaning of a [th]ecgan, meager though it is, indicates that here it can be translated as either ‘to feed’ or ‘to kill’" (43). Proposed meanings for [th]reat include "band of men, violence, force, peril, want" (43). And although Baker argues that because "cyme[th] in these lines suggests that we should take on as expressing movement, and thus understand [th]reat as something concrete to move towards, namely a band of men" (43), one cannot so easily dismiss the other readings, particularly any metaphorical ones. As such, even though one can argue to a degree any one interpretation of a word or phrase, such arguments, because based on the "fallible scholarly tools" that Baker both discusses and employs, cannot clearly posit any one as definitive.

Baker follows the above explications with a well-developed and reasonable interpretation of the poem, upholding, even if only conjecturally, the traditional meaning most critics have assigned to it. However, before closing his argument, in discussing the possible relationship between the speaker and the hwelp, he cites Fanagan, hypothesizing that:

Conceivably, Eadwacer has fathered the speaker’s child, though hwelp in line 16, which many have translated "child," means literally "pup, cub," and can refer to a child only metaphorically. John M. Fanagan (p.135) suggests that hwelp is not a child at all, but rather a metaphor for the relationship of the speaker and Eadwacer. Both of these readings make good sense, but perhaps it is best to allow the metaphor to remain ambiguous. (50)

Regarding the construction of a reading at this point becomes a difficult task for Baker, who earlier in his article urged for a more definitive reading of specific ambiguous passages. One reason for this is the recognition of the overall ambiguity of the work as a whole, an ambiguity he deems "artistic" (51). Another is the specific ambiguity of hwelp. In their article "The ‘Hwelp’ in Wulf and Eadwacer," Pulsiano and Wolf argue that "the word can best be understood within the context of outlawry and in particular in light of the Old Norse vargdropi as it appears in Gragas and Sigrdrifumal" (7). Not only has Stanley devalued the validity of the "outlaw" connection, but this reading is dependent upon a parallel story in the Old Norse Volsunga saga, a story which is only parallel based on the particular understanding of Wulf and Eadwacer provided by reading hwelp as referring to an outlaw. Such circular logic cannot be used to validate a contextualization for the poem in order to construct meaning. However, this inability to construct a stable reading, even after painstakingly examining key words and phrases, only serves to highlight the overall difficulty of the poem. This ambiguity, as both Baker and Davidson point out, may in fact be intentional. Citing Davidson, Baker writes:

One of the most interesting recent attempts to bring order to this critical anarchy is by Arnold E. Davidson, who writes, "the very fact that the poem can be read in so many different ways suggests that it might be ambiguous and perhaps deliberately so." (40)

Despite such significant linguistic attempts as Baker’s, then, this poem may be intended to be ambiguous, and thus intended to resist contextualization. To return to Malone and Renoir, this poem may not only be ambiguous for us now, but it may also have been ambiguous for a contemporary audience. As such, there is no audience, then or now, who is "equipped with the information necessary to place it in the appropriate context."

The inability to understand the poem resulting from an inability to contextualize it in terms of original audience is addressed by E.G. Stanley in his article "Wolf, My Wolf!" After exploring the etymology of wulf–investigating, as Baker did, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic linguistic connection–he comes to the conclusion that the connection between

Old English wulf and outlawry dissolves. . . . [T]here is no evidence for believing that in that obscure poem the monothematic name Wulf . . . would have suggested to the Anglo-Saxons, as it has suggested to generations of Anglo-Saxonists, that Wulf was an outlaw. (53)

Evidencing, as Baker does, a distrust of the academic community’s ability to (re)construct a meaning for the poem, Stanley not only shows how philological investigations are important for scholars in their attempt (seen clearly in Baker) to contextualize the poem, but he also helps to expose how such investigations (implied by the "generations of Anglo-Saxonists" who have connected wulf to outlawry) have led the critical community to generate meaning(s) for the poem based on faulty linguistically based cultural contextualization. However, philological investigations are not the only way in which the critical community has attempted to construct a context to further understand the poem.

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

In his essay "Overinterpreting Texts," literary critic and medievalist Umberto Eco writes: "In theory, one can always invent a system that renders otherwise unconnected clues plausible" (62). Although I am not arguing that the connections made by critics concerning Wulf and Eadwacer are entirely unconnected, I am highlighting the fact that such clues are not definitively connected; and with the case of hwelp, for instance, there may be two different renderings of the validity of the clues, and how they may be connected. Thus, an understanding of the ways in which this poem has been contextualized is in order, if only to hint at the play of meanings that has been generated by the research constructed around this work. Following Aertsen’s "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Woman’s Cri de Coeur–For Whom, For What?" the critical readings of the poem can be separated into two camps: those based on internal evidence, and those based on external evidence, what Fanagan has called "internal interpretations" and "external interpretations" (qtd. in Aertsen 121). What follows in this section is a brief discussion taken in part from Aertsen’s classification of the critical research on the poem. For a fuller outline and discussion of this work, the reader should consult Aertsen’s article, essential in wading through the muck of critical discourse constructed around this poem. 3

Of the proposed interpretations of Wulf and Eadwacer, the most common (what is often referred to as the traditional reading) according to Aertsen are those that "take the poem to be about human beings who have some sort of love relationship with one another" (124). Aertsen notes that these interpretations come after two major attempts in the nineteenth century to first read the poem as a riddle (a reading that was brought back to critical attention briefly by Fanagan in 1976), followed by Bradley’s hypothesis that "the so-called riddle is not a riddle at all, but a fragment of a dramatic soliloquy" (qtd. in Aertsen 120), who offered what was for a long time the most widely accepted interpretation:

The speaker, it should be premised, is shown by the grammar to be a woman. Apparently she is a captive in a foreign land. Wulf is her lover and an outlaw, and Eadwacer (I suspect, though it is not certain) her tyrant husband. (qtd. in Aertsen 120-21)

The more recent interpretations referred to in this section build off of Bradley’s proposition, to a different degree for each critic. For instance, as Aertsen summarizes, Sir Israel Gollancz (1902) reversed the roles played by Wulf and Eadwacer, a reading brought back to critical attention by Peter Baker (1981):

It is more likely that Wulf is her husband. He has been outlawed by her people; she, perhaps because she is the wife of an outlaw, has been sent to live on an island, where she is watched over by Eadwacer, who has made love to her. (qtd. in Aertsen 122).

P. J. Frankis (1962) argues for Eadwacer as the father, claiming that "Bradley’s suggestion that Eadwacer is the woman’s husband is less satisfactory: exile to a remote island suggests rather the action of an outraged father than of a deceived husband" (qtd. in Aertsen 122). In this reading, Frankis reads Wulf as a scop (reading the poem in terms of Deor, providing yet another context). Other readings for Wulf are proposed by Dolores Frese (1983), who reads him as the speaker’s son:

The lyric speaks the particular, personal anguish of a woman whose son has lost his life, and consequently cannot fulfill the personal, cultural, and religious history of mother and son (uncer giedd geador, 19a) (qtd. in Aertsen 122)

as do Carol Jamison (1987) and Seiichi Suzuki (1987), who argues that "Wulf is the son of the speaker, and . . . the poem is the latter’s expression of grief for her separation from her dear son, who is away from home in military service" (qtd. in Aertsen 122). J. A. Tasioulas (1996) also reads into this poem a military overtone, reading Wulf as the abandoned offspring between the speaker and Eadwacer, a soldier with whom she spent one night of passion. Further developments from the general reading(s) of "some sort of love relationship" are offered by Richard Giles (1981), who reads eadwacer–"property-watcher"–as the speaker herself who is in charge of protecting their "wretched whelp," and Dolores Frese (1983) who reads eadwacer as a guardian spirit who she terms "Heaven-watcher."

As is readily apparent from this brief survey of major critical readings, there is no uniform consensus with regard to reading the poem as representing a love relationship centered on three participants. In fact, readings have been proposed by critics which break even from this overly generalized standard. As Aertsen points out, W. J. Sedgefield (1931) explained the poem as a love tale between two dogs:

A female dog of a romantic temperament is dreaming, day-dreaming perhaps, of a wolf with whom she has actually had, or dreams she had, a love-affair in the course of her rambles in the forest. She dreams that her masters are hot on the trail of the wolf, the felon beast, on a neighboring island in the fen. At this juncture she is awakened from her dream by the terrified yelping of her puppy. Instantly she turns to her lawful mate, slumbering by her side, with the cry, ‘Wake up, Eadwacer, a wolf is carrying off our puppy to the forest.’ . . . The name of the watch-dog, Eadwacer, is an apt one, as it means ‘guardian of wealth.’ (qtd. in Aertsen 125)

Although this reading does work within the theme of "love and loss" and gives the canine participants human characteristics (such as speech), Aertsen removes it from his first category of interpretations because Sedgefield reads the participants as dogs. A second reading that breaks with Aertsen’s above classification scheme is Fry’s reading of the poem (1971) "as a charm against warts" and of his reading of the poet as "scop-doctor (or -patient)" (qtd. in Aertsen 125). Even though these two readings in particular have been largely dismissed by the recent critical community, their very existence not as interpretations but as attempts to construct a meaning around the poem work to show how the critical community has only complicated whatever meaning is to be found in the work (if one meaning, as Davidson reminds us, is to be found). However, as Aertsen’s study further helps to show, the other group of readings–"external interpretations"–shows how the critical community has also over-contextualized this work, which has further confused any attempt to reach a uniform understanding of the poem.

In the 1902 issue of PMLA, both W. W. Lawrence and W. H. Schofield constructed a meaning for Wulf and Eadwacer based on a comparison with Old Norse narratives. Specifically, Schofield

identifies what he believes to be the Old Norse context for the poem: the story of Sigmund and Signy in the Volsunga Saga. He suggests that W&E is a lament by Signy, who addresses Sigmund as Wolf, because he is an outlaw, since he had, as the saga tells us, committed a murder and could therefore not remain at home with his father. (qtd. in Aertsen 130)

As Aertsen also points out: "At the end of that same year, Bradley comments on the findings of Lawrence and Schofield with these words: ‘while the writers have made a contribution of considerable value to the elucidation of the poem, their main contentions are either erroneous or unproved’" (130). Reading the poem in the context of this Old Norse saga has persisted in the critical community, taken up again by Frese (1983), Pulsiano and Wolf (1991), and Carole Hough (1995), who also reads the speaker and her lover as brother and sister, a twist that, if read in terms of the "human beings who have some sort of love relationship with one another" classification discussed above, further complicates any attempt to conclusively determine in what ways the characters are related to one another. Other attempts to read this poem in an Old Norse context are provided by Ruth P. M. Lehmann (1969), who identifies Eadwacer as Odoacer from the Old Norse Hildebrandslied and A. C. Bouman (1949), who reads the poem in the context of the Old Norse Volundarkvi[th]a (Aertsen 132). Other attempts to read Wulf and Eadwacer in a foreign context include those by Gollancz (1902), who writes against the Old Norse contextualization:

If, as seems probable, the subject of the poem was drawn from Teutonic legend, surely Eadwacer–i.e., Odoacer–points to the cycle of Theoderic; and a stronger case can be made for "Wulf" as applied to Theoderic (Dietrich) than ‘as suitable to Sigmund.’" (qtd. in Aertsen 130-31)

This was later taken up again by Lehmann (1969); as well as L. L. Schucking (1919) and Frankis (1962), who both contextualize the poem in terms of "the Wolfdietrich B story" (Aertsen 132).

Other critics have claimed a Saxon context for the poem, such as Rudolf Imelmann (1907, 1920) who, as Aertsen summarizes, argued "for a cycle in Old English literature dealing with Odoaker, not the Odoacer proposed by Gollancz but a Saxon chief named Eadwacer (or Adovacrius in Gregory of Tours) who invaded Gaul in 463" (131). Further,

Imelmann originally envisaged a cycle consisting of just three poems in a kind of trilogy, W&E (on the basis of the occurrence of the name Eadwacer in l.16), The Wife’s Lament (on the basis of its thematic affinity to W&E) and The Husband’s Message (on the basis of his reading of the runes at the end of the poem as spelling the name of Eadwacer). (Aertsen 131)

Given the disparity of opinions concerning the contextualization of this poem, it would appear that not only is there no one probable context in which one can read this work, but rather that the multiplicity of contexts suggests the inability to read this poem in any context. Aertsen makes such a step when he writes "[h]ence, the only valid interpretation of the poem, it would seem, is an interpretation of the poem as poem, i.e. of the feelings and emotions it conveys" (132).

Such a defeatist attitude would appear to want to dismiss all of the work done to contextualize the poem, and simply appreciate it on purely artistic grounds, as Peter Baker has also proposed (51). Renoir also argues that "this lack of context, however, need not prevent us from appreciating the artistry" (148). However, even a seemingly simple artistic appreciation becomes problematized when one considers the hypothesis, proposed by Lawrence and more recently argued by Lehmann, that the poem is incomplete. Bradley was the first to put forth the notion of missing lines, for his translation starts with a line of asterisks between brackets. Lawrence "prints the text with a two-line lacuna between lines 1 and 2," and Lehmann

divided the poem into five sections or stanzas, assumes the loss of two lines at the beginning of the poem, [and] assumes furthermore that this first line now lost must have started with the word Wulf, since this would make the first four of her five stanzas start with a reference to Wulf. (qtd. in Aertsen 133)

Even a formalist approach, it would seem, is blocked by the text, resulting from an ambiguity deriving from what could possibly be missing lines. As such, even the poem’s poetic structure is ultimately under dispute, depending on whether one understands the poem to be missing lines, and if so, from which section.

As Aertsen mentions near the start of his article, and as Davidson and Baker also hypothesize, "it may well be possible that the poet himself (or herself) allowed such multiple readings on purpose and that the poem’s obscurity and ambiguity only adds to its appeal, even to modern readers" (120). Although the point is a minor one, even the gender of the speaker (and/or poet, because we cannot with any degree of certainty separate them) has been under dispute. Although now dismissed by the academic community as a misreading, most recently by Marilynn Desmond (1990), Norman E. Eliason posited the speaker as male and argued that the poem should be read as referring to the violence done a poem by copying one section into one manuscript and the rest in another, less favorable, location (228). Note that this misreading also works to support the hypothesis of missing lines, necessitating a specific lack in order to construct a meaning. However, one could argue that modern readers especially would find the poem appealing, given one current movement in critical discourse: post-structuralism. Considering the recent rise not only in critical discussion of Wulf and Eadwacer, but specifically in post-structuralist approaches to it, one must by necessity turn to post-structuralist thought to try and make sense of the critical contextualization.

The Play of Meanings

Although by no means a new direction in critical thinking, post-structuralist approaches to medieval, and in particular Anglo-Saxon, literature are only recently being attempted. As Carol Braun Pasternack argues:

This theoretical perspective has been largely resisted by Anglo-Saxonists, perhaps because its theoretical diction and syntax have seemed to obscure matters that had seemed clear enough before post-structuralist interventions, and perhaps because the theories have seemed to be more concerned with their own post-modernist era than with the Middle Ages. (170)

There are a number of issues here that need to be unpacked. First, with the case of scholarship dealing with Wulf and Eadwacer, we can see that nothing is, or even "seemed," clear. Second, a number of critics have already begun to read the poem in terms of post-structuralist, specifically feminist, literary criticism. Third, what is at stake here is not an interpretation of the poem (something that by now should be seen as a problematic undertaking), but rather a reading of the critical tradition that has worked to construct multiple contexts for this work, and as such has not only challenged any original meaning for the work (if any such meaning ever existed), but in the terminology provided by Jacques Derrida, has opened up the "play" of meanings.

The first of the above points should be clear enough–should in fact, at this point, be about the only aspect of discussion about the poem made clear. In terms of the second point, the rising number of studies with a basis in post-structuralist thinking, a short overview should be sufficient. Two such recent critics who have turned to post-structuralism in order to attempt to make sense of this poem are Marilynn Desmond and Patricia A. Belanoff. In her article "The Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and the Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Elegy," Desmond challenges

the patriarchal sensibilities of modern scholars and editors, who have reacted [to "female-voiced lyrics"] with appropriate phallic authority by emending the texts and producing elaborate allegorical readings, thus silencing the female speakers . . . and erasing women from Anglo-Saxon literary history. (574)

Employing the terminology of feminist discourse, Desmond’s goal is to reclaim for the modern reader the importance of understanding female speakers in Anglo-Saxon literature. Although one cannot be certain of the gender of the author, the gender of the speaker is clearly female, and for Desmond, "[w]hereas the gender of the author becomes insignificant . . . the gender of the speaker becomes all-important. The grammar and narrative context of . . . Wulf and Eadwacer record[s] [a] female voice" (583). Similarly, Belanoff argues in "Women’s Songs, Women’s Language: Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament" that

the uniqueness of these poems [as expressions of female voices in Old English literature] suggests that our reading and understanding of them would be enriched if we view them as expressions of the feminine in a literary milieu seemingly dominated by heroic male action. (193)

Such recent work, enlightening as it is as a study of the nature of the speaker and her place in the Anglo-Saxon literary canon, would now seem to add yet another context in which this poem can be read. For in discussing the importance of the female voice in Wulf and Eadwacer, Belanoff contextualizes the poem in terms of another literary tradition. Referring to both Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament, she writes that to "appreciate them fully, we must read them as both Old English poems and as frauenlieder" (193). Belanoff here gives a further context to the poem, one based this time on genre, reading it in the tradition of Germanic women’s songs. This not only further obfuscates the poem’s meaning, but also shows how dependent all methods of critical investigation are on contextualizing the poem in order to make sense of it.

In a more detailed post-structuralist study focusing on the genre of Wulf and Eadwacer, Dolores Warwick Frese argues that

[i]t is just such a blurring of the elegiac and the amorous in the history of criticism on Wulf and Eadwacer that I believe we might profitably examine here, preparatory to relocating the poem in the elegiac category, where its passion would seem to be, rather than sexual and amorous, more maternal and religious in its motivation. (274)

By using deconstructive methods of reading, Frese operates first in the space between the two sympathies–elegiac and amorous–in order to separate the two, with the final purpose of reclassifying the poem as an elegy. What is further interesting about her study is her contextualizing of the poem in the space between "pagan and Christian cultures evident in so much Old English poetry" (273). Therefore, post-structuralism seems only to offer another method by which the critical community can contextualize the poem. However, its usefulness as a method of inquiry has not yet been exhausted.

Regarding the third issue raised by Pasternack, the contention that "the theories have seemed to be more concerned with their own post-modernist era than with the Middle Ages," this may be the case with literary texts, but the focus of this study is on the recent (twentieth century, for the most part) discourse community that has formed around the poem. As such, a post-structuralist approach is most certainly in order.

In attempting to justify post-structuralist approaches to Anglo-Saxon studies, Pasternack writes:

More than anything else, post-structuralist theories help us look at the texts not as direct representations of culture but as participants in the construction of meaning for Anglo-Saxon culture and society, and thereby in the construction of the culture and society themselves. (170)

Thus, reading a poem is shown to be a faulty method in trying to come to an understanding of the meaning that belongs to the society and culture of the poem, because texts are not representational of the culture but rather are active participants in it, working to construct the very values one would try to read in it. This is especially the case for such a reading of Anglo-Saxon texts, and even more so for Wulf and Eadwacer, where the "culture and society" cannot be taken for granted, as there is often a lack of solid evidence for contextualizing the poem in any one culture. For instance, should one read Wulf and Eadwacer as representative of Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon culture? The answer would depend on which of these contexts one would place this poem in. This circular logic, of contextualizing the poem in order to construct a meaning for it, a meaning that would then reflect the values of the culture and society in which one contextualized it, shows itself to be problematic.

However, as useful as Pasternack’s bridge between post-structuralism and Anglo-Saxon studies is, she sees deconstruction (as a specific method of post-structuralist critical inquiry) as initiating "analysis by laying out a text’s conceptual systems in binary fashion, identifying oppositional differences" (173). This is problematic for two reasons. First, by focusing on one method of critical inquiry (here, deconstruction) as representative of the whole field of theory (here, post-structuralism), she dismisses the positive work done in other post-structuralist discourses, such as feminism. Second, and more importantly, although this quick definition is often the norm for deconstructive inquiries, such need not necessarily be the case. In his landmark essay "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (which was the first major post-structuralist statement), Derrida writes:

From the basis of what we therefore call the center (and which, because it can be either inside or outside, is as readily called the origin as the end, as readily arche as telos), the repetitions, the substitutions, the transformations, and the permutations are always taken from a history of meaning [sens]–that is, a history, period–whose origin may always be revealed or whose end may always be anticipated in the form of presence. (224)

Although this may seem to be unrelated to the study at hand (and one can very easily see here the obscure "theoretical diction and syntax" Pasternack notes), its applicability becomes clearer if one reads "meaning" for "center," and understands the idea of "structure" at issue as the framework of contextualization constructed around the poem (as all structures are in some way constructed). One can read through Derrida’s marking out of post-structuralist thinking a critique of any constructed framework used to thereby construct a meaning. Further, if we are to understand "the repetitions, the substitutions, the transformations, and the permutations" as, respectively, the restating of critical readings of the poem, the positing of new critical readings, the alteration of critical readings, and the developments from critical readings, one is then able to understand that the history of critical discourse dealing with the poem is, for the most part, upheld and furthered by its own very existence by the idea of a "history of meaning" which strives to keep in place the idea that meaning exists. In other words, so long as the idea that a meaning exists for Wulf and Eadwacer, the critical community will continue to employ strategies that assist in the construction of that meaning, which construction will often take the form of (at least in part) a contextualizing of the poem. As such, a reader of the poem must come to terms not with the binary of meaning/ meaningless for the poem, but with the "play" (to borrow again from Derrida) of meaning(s) that now exist for the poem via the overcontextualization of the poem by the critical community, as well as those that may have existed (going back to Davidson, Baker, and Aertsen) for the original audience, the original discourse community of the poem.

Now that the idea of "meaning" for Wulf and Eadwacer has been deconstructed, we can turn to Pasternack’s conclusion, where she admits that post-structuralism could help to "characterize the subject’s struggle" (179) in the poem, but refuses to show how. In fact, the only text she chooses to critique in terms of post-structuralism is Beowulf, and at that only as a light introductory effort. Where such a lack of critique would normally work to weaken her claims on the applicability of post-structuralism to Anglo-Saxon studies, here it highlights, at least for Wulf and Eadwacer, the inability for yet another method of inquiry to uniformly and definitively construct a meaning for the poem. Nor is that the aim of the present study. Deconstructing the poem would serve no end; not even deconstruction could further disrupt meaning for the poem, given all the directions that have been taken by the critical community. However, by deconstructing the critical community itself–by showing how meaning is constructed, specifically contextually–one is able to see the play of meaning(s) operating within the greater critical framework of the poem.

Conclusion: Contextualizing the Context

In the spirit of Alain Renoir, my purpose is "not to offer yet another interpretation" (159), which would only add to the confusion inherent in any attempt to create a meaning for such a difficult poem. However, neither am I offering, as does Renoir, a "noninterpretation." Such a work would be just as useless. On the other hand–if such a third hand can exist–I offer a "reading" of the critical discourse that has constructed a play of meaning(s) around Wulf and Eadwacer. Unless further information (cultural, historical, etc.) about the poem be made available through the uncovering of new manuscripts, for instance, information that will in some way verify some of the claims made about the poem’s meaning, critics are forever at a dead end. Aside from further strengthening the extant contextualizations and the readings they propose, critics are only able to construct new meanings, based on even more diverse contextualizations. Such work is already at hand (and very much needed) in constructing a feminist reading of the poem and a genre-based contextualization in terms of the Germanic frauenlieder. However, as it now stands, critics must submit to the fact that, as Alain Renoir wishes the critical community to understand, "the important thing for us is that to a point the poem stands apart from its meaning" (160). I would like to further this proposition and claim that beyond the immediate example of Wulf and Eadwacer, "meaning" cannot be assumed to be an inherent part of any text or, as Renoir mistakenly presumes, present for any audience of the work, even the original audience. Further, the critical discourse community cannot assume that such meaning exists, which assumption would then be the basis for the further employment of reading strategies to construct that meaning, based on a contextualization of the poem not grounded in anything present in the work itself. As a result, all readings based on contextualization and all meanings generated thus by the critical discourse community are suspect, for this and any other text whose meaning depends on contextualization generated outside of the text itself. Meaning, as such, becomes destabilized, as the tools ordinarily used by the academic community prove to obfuscate, rather than clarify, the context and meaning of the text.


1 Malone, Kemp. "Two English Frauenlieder." Studies in Old English Literature in Honor of Arthur G. Brodeur. Ed. Stanley B. Greenfield. Eugene: U of Oregon P, 1963. 106-17. Return

2 The Exeter Book. Exeter Cathedral Library, 3501. Current accepted scholarship places the manuscript in the West Country, and dates it between 970-990 (Klinck 1992, citing Robin Flower). The standard facsimile of The Exeter Book is The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry, edited by Raymond W. Chambers, et. al. (1933). Return

3 Sources of indirect quotations and paraphrases are listed below: Return

Bradley, Henry. "Review of Henry Morley’s English Writers, Vol. II, 2nd ed." Academy 33 (March 1888): 197-98.

---. "The Sigurd Cycle and Britain." Athenaeum (December 1902): 758.

Bouman, A. C. "Leodum is Minum: Beadohild’s Complaint." Neophilologus 33 (1949): 103-13.

Davidson, Arnold E. "Interpreting Wulf and Eadwacer." Annuale Mediaevale 16 (1975): 24-32.

Fanagan, John M. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Solution to the Critics’ Riddle." Neophilologus 60:1 (January 1976): 130-37.

Frankis, P. J. "Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer: Some Conjectures." Medium Aevum 31:3 (1962): 161-75.

Fry, Donald K. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Wen Charm." The Chaucer Review 5 (1971): 247-63.

Gollancz, Israel. "The Sigurd Cycle and Britain." Athenaeum. (October 1902): 551-52.

Imelmann, Rudolf. Die altenglische Odoaker-Dichtung. Berlin: Springer, 1907.

---. Forschungen zur altenglischen Poesie. Berlin: Weidmann, 1920.

Jamison, Carol Parrish. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Mother's Lament for Her Son." Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1987): 88-95.

Lawrence, William W. "The First Riddle of Cynewulf." PMLA 17 (1902): 247-61.

Lehmann, Ruth P. M. "The Metrics and Structure of Wulf and Eadwacer." Philological Quarterly 48:2 (April 1969): 151-65.

Schofield, William Henry. ""Signy’s Lament." PMLA 17. (1902) 262-95.

Schucking, L. L. "Kleines angelsachsisches Dichterbuch." Cothen, 1919.

Sedgefield, W. J. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Old English Notes 1. Modern Language Review 26 (1931): 74-75.

Suzuki, Seiichi. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Reinterpretation and Some Conjectures." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88:2 (1987): 175-85.Return


Aertsen, Henk. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Woman's Cri de Coeur—For Whom, For What?" Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: Vrije UP, 1994. 119-44.

Alexander, Michael. The Earliest English Poems. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Baker, Peter S. "The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer." Studies in Philology 78:5 (Early Winter 1981): 39-51.

Belanoff, Patricia A. "Women’s Songs, Women’s Language: Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Ed. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 193-203.

Bradley, S. A. J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Everyman’s Library, 1982.

Chambers, Raymond W., Max Forster and Robin Flower, eds. The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry. London: Percy Lund, 1933.

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 223-42.

Desmond, Marilynn. "The Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and the Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Elegy." Critical Inquiry 16:3 (Spring 1990): 572-90.

Eco, Umberto. "Overinterpreting texts." Interpretation and Overinterpretation. With Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose. Ed. Stephan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 45-66.

Eliason, Norman E. "On Wulf and Eadwacer." Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope. Ed. Robert B. Burlin, Edward B. Irving, Jr., and Marie Borroff. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. 225-34.

Frese, Dolores Warwick. "Wulf and Eadwacer: The Adulterous Woman Reconsidered." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Ed. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 273-291.

Giles, Richard R. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A New Reading." Neophilologus 65 (1981): 468-72.

Gordon, R. K. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. 2nd ed. London and New York, 1954.

Hough, Carole A. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Note on Ungelic." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 8:3 (Summer 1995): 3-6.

Jones, F. "A Note on the Interpretation of Wulf and Eadwacer." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 86:3 (1985): 323-27.

Klinck, Anne L. The Old English Elegies: A Critical and Genre Study. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 1992.

Pasternack, Carol Braun. "Post-structuralist theories: the subject and the text." Reading Old English Texts. Ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 170-91.

Pulsiano, Phillip, and Kirsten Wolf. "The ‘Hwelp’ in Wulf and Eadwacer." English Language Notes 28:3 (March 1991): 1-9.

Renoir, Alain. "Wulf and Eadwacer: A Noninterpretation." Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. Ed. Jess B. Bessinger, Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York UP, 1965. 147-63.

Spamer, James B. "Wulf and Eadwacer." Old English Newsletter 12:2 (Spring 1979): 30.

Stanley, E. G. "Wolf, My Wolf." Old English and New: Studies in Language and Linguistics in Honor of Frederic G. Cassidy. Ed. Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane and Dick Ringler. New York: Garland, 1992. 46-62.

Tasioulas, J. A. "The Mother's Lament: Wulf and Eadwacer Reconsidered." Medium Aevum. 65:1 (1996): 1-18.

Thorpe, Benjamin, ed. Codex Exoniensis: from a Manuscript in the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter. London: Society of Antiquaries, 1842.

Traherne, Elaine. Old and Middle English: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.